On 14 April last year, an unusually poignant gig took place at the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda, Melbourne. The Beasts of Bourbon – the self-styled ugliest, most badass rock band on the planet – played what would be their final gig in what was perhaps the only way the band could have ended.
Bass player Brian Henry Hooper, for whom the gig was a benefit, was surrounded by half a dozen nurses and wearing an oxygen mask. No one had been sure whether he would be able to play until the moment arrived; the band’s original bassist Boris Sudjovic was on standby. Guitarist Spencer P Jones was also playing one of his final performances.
Hooper passed away from lung cancer six days later, aged 55. Jones died on 21 August, aged 61. And the Beasts of Bourbon – the band that stubbornly refused to die, and had been through numerous permutations and reconciliations during a 25-year history of inebriation, as demanded by the band’s very name – was officially dead.
By comparison, Tex Perkins, the band’s frontman, is in rude health, a few streaks of grey through his leonine mane of hair being the main giveaway of his 54 years. His latest blood tests have come back clear – the first thing he tells me, in response to a benign greeting.
But with that comes survivor’s guilt. The singer is virtually a symbol of old-school Australian masculinity – in his height, his low growl, and his band’s well-earned reputation as hard livers. Until their livers, collectively, started to scream for mercy.
The last year, he says, has been “a long, long slog”, and it’s left him vulnerable.
“Psychologically, it’s been a tough year, not only for the grieving but for the self-reflection that comes with seeing friends go – and we all have a similar history,” he says. “I had a lot of self-examination, which was unfruitful, really. I didn’t really come up with a good answer.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not trying to find it. His conversation is notable for long pauses and longer stares into space, across the beer garden of a pub on the far north coast of New South Wales. In the end, the best he can come up with is time: “You’ve just got to keep going and you obsess about these things a little less, hopefully.”
Out of that grief, the band has risen again, in new/old form, as the Beasts. Sudjovic returns alongside original, previously estranged guitarist Kim Salmon, who joins his replacement Charlie Owen, and drummer Tony Pola.
On his deathbed, delirious, Hooper had demanded that Perkins book studio time. Perkins rang around and, while the bass player didn’t make it, the surviving members – gathered together in Melbourne for his funeral – bashed out an album, Still Here, in a single session.
It was similar to how the Beasts of Bourbon had recorded their debut The Axeman’s Jazz in 1984, though perhaps not fuelled by as many intoxicants. The “freakish takeaway”, Perkins says, is “this magnificent new version of the band which I’m really excited about”.
The name, though, had to go. Most fans knew them in shorthand as the Beasts anyway, but Perkins says he’s tired of shouldering what he calls the mythology of the Beasts of Bourbon. “I don’t want to have to carry around that history any longer,” he says. “And I really feel that also, just quietly, it’s a bit of a curse.”
If that’s the case, he acknowledges, it was a curse of the group’s own making. The Beasts of Bourbon made a handful of Australia’s hardest, meanest rock & roll records this side of AC/DC, but the legacy of the band was mostly on stage, where they set a benchmark of live performance.
The price, though, has been immense. The Beasts of Bourbon “[broke] the bar record every time we played – that became part of our reputation”, Perkins says. They were “always drunk, always belligerent”, and songs like Chase The Dragon detailed the harder edge and habits of some of the members, Jones and Hooper most certainly included. In the last year, Perkins says, “we saw the results”.
“Spencer didn’t get away with this one,” he says. “Spencer died many times, and miraculously came back. So did Brian. Brian was the ultimate phoenix, rising from the ashes over and over again, and actually I thought his illness was going to be another example of Brian wilfully just kicking adversity in the arse.”
Jones did manage to play on one of his last songs on Still Here. It’s called At The Hospital – where, the guitarist noted wryly, “there’s so many class A drugs”.
Apart from grief, Perkins says, “to see it all catch up with us, for me and possibly other people … There’s a whole lot of regret and guilt.”
At the same time there’s been healing, especially with Salmon, who had left the band in 1993 to pursue his own project the Surrealists – a continuation of his earlier, legendary band the Scientists. “I’ve always loved Kim. I started out as a Scientists fan, I was an every-gig fan, one of those fans.
In a song called Time, which Jones covered, New York songwriter and poet Richard Hell said that you only see things for what they really are when you’re stepping into your hearse. “If you don’t learn anything on the way, that’s true,” Perkins says. “But I don’t know, that’s a …” he trails off. “There’s always regret that you’ll never shake.”
For him, the next test will be singing the songs on stage. “I’ve got no idea how it’s going to go, whether it’s going to be as emotional, whether I’ll have to just sing the fucking song and not think about what [I’m] actually singing about. I’ve got no idea. But I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
First published in The Guardian, 9 February 2019